Union Station may become Denver's gateway again -- if it stays on track

Page 2 of 8

But as the metro area's population continued to swell — it now clocks in at nearly 2.8 million people, up from 1 million in 1980 — planners, elected officials and residents realized that highway construction alone wouldn't be enough. A better solution would be to have new rail lines flowing into the city like spokes of a bicycle wheel so commuters, shoppers and those bound for the airport could quickly and easily get around while leaving traffic-snarled freeways and automobile-based suburban sprawl behind. And it was clear that in any such plan, Union Station should be the central axle.

"We needed a hub in the right location," says Marsella, "and, of course, Union Station, in addition to being a city icon, is also in the right position where all the trains come together, and it's blocks from one of the busiest parts of the city and a block from I-25. It was a natural fit."

Many U.S. cities outside the East Coast have long since turned the wrecking ball on their deteriorating grand railroad stations or made them into shopping malls. Denver never did so, thanks in part to nostalgic and forward-thinking civic boosters like "Save Our Station," a citizen group that included John Hickenlooper, years before he was mayor, which helped stave off Union Station's potential demolition in 1988.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for Denver to have a historic building with as much emotional attachment to it and have it so centrally located," says Marilee Utter, president of Citiventure Associates LLC and former RTD development specialist. "Usually when you have a transit center like that, it's in the middle of nowhere."

In fact, the highest concentration of recent investment and infrastructure in the Denver area is in historic LoDo, right around the station, says Peter Park, the city's director of community planning and development. "And if you look at what's happening in the Central Platte Valley and its connections to the Highlands, this development at Union Station will continue to help stitch downtown with the neighborhoods."

These factors led Denver, the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to join RTD at the negotiating table with Union Station's private owners and keep them there for more than a year, even as the deal's expected $30 million price tag rose higher; Denver City Council threatened to seize the station through eminent domain to keep discussions going. In July 2001, the parties finally reached a deal: The public agencies would buy the station and the 19.5 acres it sat on for $49.8 million. While the sum was considerable, the purchase would turn out to be a savvy move. In 2004, voters approved FasTracks by the same margin they'd rejected the far less specific plan proposed by Guide the Ride.

And by that point, the public had an idea of what the new and improved station would look like. In September 2004, the Union Station Advisory Committee, a 96-member citizen group, unveiled the Union Station Master Plan, the result of a two-year, $5.3 million analysis of potential redevelopment at the site. This best-case-scenario proposal, which didn't consider time or money constraints, called for light-rail streetcars, heavier commuter rail trains, and RTD and private buses all running beneath the station, at a total estimated cost of $560 million.

Though FasTracks allocated only $208.8 million for the work, the shortfall wasn't a miscalculation. With more than 31 cities and counties involved, "there was a lot of focus on what the transit map would look like," says Roger Sherman, chief operating officer of CRL Associates, the powerful lobbying firm that helped promote the project. "There was a lot of give and take about where the lines go, where the stations end up, what development goes first." So to avoid the impression that Denver would score a fancy new transit hub at the expense of the suburbs, Union Station's redevelopment was purposely underfunded.

"We had a pot of money — not enough, but we had something," Sherman says. "It shifted from just having a vision to 'Now we have to do something.'"

Tom Gougeon and Frank Cannon — the project executive and development manager, respectively, of the Union Station Neighborhood Company, a collaboration of prominent local developers Continuum Partners and East West Partners in charge of redeveloping Union Station — stand in their sleek, modern offices in the heart of the historic station and consider what they've gotten themselves into.

"I spend every hour of every day working on this," says Cannon, who worked for the consulting team that drafted the Union Station Master Plan.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner